A Review of the Book Stronger than Steel: Soldiers of the Great War Write to Saint Therese of Lisieux
by Les Poilus, translated by Sr. Marie of the Child Jesus
(Brooklyn, New York: Angelico Press, May 2021)
We often hear about soldiers who call upon the saints to help them during battle. Rarely do we hear how the saints answer these pleas. The short work, Stronger than Steel: Soldiers of the Great War Write to Saint Therese of Lisieux, is a collection of letters testifying to the supernatural intercession of the French Carmelite. It should encourage us in the brutal culture war of our days.
The book consists of nothing but letters composed by French and some English soldiers during World War I. They were written to the Carmel in Lisieux, where Saint Therese lived and died. Some letters are even addressed to Saint Therese, who died in 1896, years before World War I.
Her sanctity was based on her “Little Way,” which encouraged Catholics to do small things with a grand perspective. She quickly became known all over France and the world. Her way may have been little, but her actions were great both as a Carmelite and a protector of those who call upon her. The soldiers that penned these letters show this powerful intercession well.
As in any modern army, there were believers and non-believers on the Allied side. Combat brings out the best in some and the worst in others. Saint Therese made the best better and changed the direction of many headed in the wrong direction.
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This book contains letter after letter recounting Saint Therese’s interventions in the lives of soldiers during the horrific battles of the Great War. The wide range of stories helps us believe in their authenticity. The sheer number of examples leaves little room for doubt.
Many letters were written right away, while others were composed after the war. The authors of these letters came from all walks of society: the poor, working class, middle class, nobility and clergy.
One class of testimony came from those who did not experience any visible miracles. However, they felt Saint Therese’s protective presence. Some soldiers carried medals and even second-class relics of the saint, years before she was canonized in 1925. Others had small pieces of her Carmelite habit.
Many letters often contained requests for medals, holy cards and even relics of Saint Therese to share with fellow soldiers.
Some soldiers related how they scorned the devotion until they undeservedly received and witnessed Saint Therese’s protection and mercy.
However, the most fascinating part of the book is about the miracles. There are many. Sometimes, soldiers heard a woman’s voice offering encouragement in the middle of intense combat, which they attributed to Saint Therese. Sometimes they saw her image in the sky. At times, she would lead them to safety through intense artillery barrages. Some were even taken by the hand and led to safety, while others nearby were mowed down by gunfire or artillery explosions.
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This book is an excellent inspiration for our times. Why? We are living on the front lines in the trenches of a culture war. We face a society that increasingly hates God, Our Lady, His Church, traditional marriage, the traditional family and the innocence of children. We face adversity even inside the Church by those who attack centuries-long established Catholic teachings and practices.
Just like a World War I artillery barrage, we are surrounded by constant explosions that endanger us in every facet of life.
These letters teach lessons of great hope amid the rain of evil that falls upon us. We can see how Our Lady, the angels and saints, including Saint Therese, greatly desire to help us, even in miraculous ways. We only need to ask with a pure heart. If we do not have a pure heart, we can ask them to help us have a pure heart.
One more important lesson from this book is the need to stay engaged in the fight. Saint Therese did not take the soldiers out of the war but gave them the means to continue fighting. This lesson can be seen in the case of an artillery soldier who was run over by a two-ton artillery piece. He believed that he survived because of Saint Therese’s intercession.
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After standing up unscathed, he put the following words on his cannon: “The Artillery Battery of Sister Therese of the Child Jesus.” Thus, we must not abandon the culture war defending Christian civilization. We must continue and take the offensive, confident in the help of heaven like that of Saint Therese.